L.A.Times Kinda Guy: Interview With Steve Hochman
By Steven Ward (September 2002)
Los Angeles Times music writer Steve Hochman earned my eternal respect when he penned the introductory essay for the liner notes of Rhino’s 1996, five-disc prog-rock box set, Supernatural Fairy Tales: The Progressive Rock Era. Here was a major mainstream rock critic–a guy who’s been published in Spin, Entertainment Weekly, and Rolling Stone–writing a piece entitled, “I Was A Teenage Prog-Rock Geek.” Hochman’s essay is smart, funny, and thoughtful for prog rock geeks like myself, and a highly illuminating introduction for those less familiar with that much-maligned genre. For this feat alone, Hochman deserves space among the writers who rhapsodize about the profession of writing at this site. He was kind enough to recently indulge rockcritics.com in an e-mail interview.
Ward: I became a huge fan of yours when I read your introductory essay, “I Was a Teenage Prog-Rock Geek,” in the Rhino Records box set, Supernatural Fairy Tales: The Progressive Rock Era. Are you a middle-aged prog rock geek today?
Hochman: Gosh, it sounds so unattractive when you say it like that…Middle-aged? I guess. Geek? Perhaps, though I’d leave that to others to determine. But no, I’m not a prog obsessive. I still like much of the old stuff–some as guilty pleasures, some as just pleasures. There are things that hold up, such as Robert Wyatt, some early and mid ’70s King Crimson and such. Other things remain admirable for their ambition, even if the execution now seems horribly dated and off-track. I’m much more inclined, though, to listen to things that my early prog experiences pointed me toward–real classical music (I mostly favor extremely early, pre-Renaissance stuff and 20th Century composers), world music (I hate the term, and don’t mean fusions, but the real, gritty music of indigenous cultures). Prog was a great starting point, taking up where the Beatles left off in terms of not settling for conventional pop structures. But let’s face it, much of it is dilettantish and downright silly when placed next to Beethoven or Bartok.
Ward: How did you get involved in the box set project? Did Rhino come to you?
Hochman: The piece I wrote for Supernatural Fairytales was actually a revision of something I’d done a year or two prior for Tower’s Pulse magazine, written on the occasion of Atlantic’s four-CD Yes box. The piece was a first-person essay done tongue-in-cheek in the mode of an AA-style sharing in which I came clean that I was, indeed, a progger. When Rhino publicist Cathy Williams called one day alerting me to upcoming projects and mentioned the prog box, I told her about my Pulse piece. And from that came Rhino’s offer for me to revise it for their project.
Ward: Why do you think prog-rock is so maligned or ignored by the mainstream rock media and what prog bands were your favorites back then and which ones do you like now?
Hochman: Guess I sort of answered this above, but prog remains an easy target because of its inherent, even essential pretensions and its favoring of purported intellect over the grittier, primal emotions of blues and rock ‘n’ roll. However, in the last 10 years or so, a lot more critics have confessed to an affection, even admiration for much prog–check out Mojo‘s regular coverage of it, including a recent Van Der Graaf Generator history. It doesn’t hurt that prog overlaps so much with the always-in-vogue psychedelia and glam. Is Bowie prog? Is Syd Barrett? Is Tommy or Quadrophenia? Is Led Zeppelin? Is Roxy Music? Is Steely Dan? If so, then those are perhaps the ones that hold up the best today. Early Tull still sounds pretty good, and a little Yes, some Crimson, and of course early Soft Machine. If one prog-related figure stands above all others, though, it’s unquestionably Brian Eno. But keep in mind that I’ve listened to Rhino’s Nuggets boxes a lot, while I only actually listened to the completed Supernatural Fairytales once, so that gives a better idea of what music of my youth has maintained a place in my life.
Ward: One last prog rock question. Tell our readers about what happened at the L.A. Times: your boss, prog-rock hater Robert Hilburn, gave the box set a bad review, and then what happened?
Hochman: It’s one of my proudest moments! Bob Hilburn told me that he was reading the booklet that came with the Rhino box and was struck by the insight and humor in an essay and started wondering who wrote it. It was only when he looked to the end of the piece that he saw it was by me. He reviewed the set and gave it a poor grade for the music, but very high praise for my entry, noting in print that he didn’t know that I’d written it until after he’d read it. There was at least one other review I saw (by someone who did not know me) that singled out my essay as the highlight of the project, so that was a big ego stroke.
Ward: Your primary music writing gig is at the L.A. Times now. How do you like writing for a huge daily newspaper on a regular basis versus your freelance days filing stories and reviews for Rolling Stone and Creem in the old days?
Hochman: I was a regular with the Times before I ever wrote for Rolling Stone (which I have done off and on for more than 15 years) or Creem (only once in the magazine’s waning days, a Robyn Hitchcock feature, for which I was never paid). So save for my very earliest experience as a music critic/journalist I’ve had the luxury of a steady gig for 17 years–a near-unique situation, from what I gather. Frankly, it’s got me spoiled.
Ward: Tell me about your favorite rock critics and rock magazines you read in your formative years, and do you think any particular rock writer influenced what you do?
Hochman: There wasn’t a lot of rock criticism to read in my formative years, at least not that I had access to. I grew up in Santa Barbara, north of L.A., so the first regular exposure to rock writing I had I guess was the L.A. Times Sunday Calendar. My grandparents subscribed to the Sunday Times, and would save the Calendar for me. So that would make Bob Hilburn the first critic that really had an ongoing impact on me. I occasionally would readRolling Stone or Creem back then, and I hung out a lot at KTYD radio in my last couple of years of high school and saw various consumer and trade publications there. When I moved to L.A. to go to college in ’74 I started seeing Melody Maker and NME and became a more regular Rolling Stone and Creem reader. I definitely remember reading Jann Wenner’s pieces, and Kurt Loder, Dave Marsh, Lenny Kaye, Ben Fong-Torres, Lester Bangs, et al with varying degrees of admiration. I remember first reading about Patti Smith in Creem, covering a performance with her backed just by Lenny Kaye doing “Piss Factory” in probably 1974. And the English papers turned me on to Eno and Sparks and helped pave the way for punk awareness. And of course the L.A. Timesbecame even more of a force, with Richard Cromelin, Terry Atkinson, Dennis Hunt, Steve Pond and Patrick Goldstein having a lot of impact on me as my tastes evolved and expanded–not that I always agreed with them. I remember being among the fans booing the name “Robert Hilburn” when Ian Anderson dedicated “Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die” to him at the Pasadena Civic in 1976 or ’77!! I was also a Deadhead, and the Times just hated the Dead in those days. So they all had a big place in my life–though I never really thought about being a rock critic myself back then. Never really even considered it as a career possibility (and only fell into it by accident later–what a fortuitous development, though). Oh, and in my adult years, though before I was a journalist, Greil Marcus’ book Mystery Train had a huge impact on me.
Ward: Explain how you fell into this “by accident”?
Hochman: I never even took a journalism class in college or really considered it as a career. I’d studied documentary film production and media theory both in undergraduate and graduate programs, and in the early ’80s was trying to get established in the documentary field, working with a small start-up company. But this was before the cable TV proliferation, and funding for documentaries was hard to come by. In late ’83, though, when I was “between projects,” some college friends of mine were involved in starting the Pasadena Weekly. I signed on for a few duties, compiling listings and writing a local sports column (profiles on youth soccer, marathoning grandmothers, whatever). I found I actually liked journalism and had some knack for it. Sometime in ’84 I also became Assistant Arts Editor, and then eventually Arts Editor. A budget crisis led to a change of publisher in early ’85, though, and he determined that the paper could get by without an Arts Editor, so suddenly I was on the freelance market. Music was my first love and passion, so as much as I could, I pursued that, writing for Music Connection under then-editor Bud Scoppa, who was invaluable as a mentor. I also picked up some assignments from the L.A. Daily News.
Eventually, I got bold enough to call Robert Hilburn with a pitch, which he rejected, explaining that he had his regular writers and there wasn’t much call for more freelancers. I asked if I could send him some clips and perhaps keep in touch anyway, and he very kindly said sure. That summer, out of the blue, I got a call from Terry Atkinson, who said they wanted to give me a tryout and asked me to do a couple of record reviews. I believe the first one was a Corey Hart album (oy!)…Anyway, the work grew from there to more reviews, features, and eventually news stories, along with me filling in for Richard Cromelin once a week and when he was on vacation, which gave me extra experience editing and coordinating the pop department’s affairs. Then in 1991, “Pop Eye” founder Patrick Goldstein left, and I was given the chance to take over the column.
Ward: What’s your opinion on Jann Wenner hiring this new editor at Rolling Stone and his attempts to one-up the Blenders and Maxims of the world?
Hochman: I’ll take a wait-and-see stance on that. Jann has made moves before, adapting to new competitors (Spin, Details, etc.) with mixed results. I don’t like a lot of what Rolling Stone has been in recent years. But then, I don’t think I’m the targeted reader any more. That said, no matter what changes there have been, Jann’s stamp has always been clear. It’s his magazine and will always reflect his sensibilities. Still, no magazine can have the preeminence that RS once had as a central cultural force.
Ward: Do you think rock criticism is bad shape now? Better or worse than the ’70s or ’80s or ’90s?
Hochman: It’s pretty hard to compare the eras. It’s a different job today than it was in the ’60s and ’70s, and even than in the ’80s and ’90s. For one thing, the field is much more diffuse–both in terms of the number of writers and outlets on the beat, and in terms of the fragmentation of music/culture landscape. And too many writers seem to be writing to impress other writers, not to serve their readers–though that’s not a new problem. As well, the nature of covering the music world has changed. Now it has a lot more to do with covering the music business rather than just the artists and the music. Certainly at the L.A. Times that is the case–the entertainment business is the business of L.A. One can’t separate those matters from the music, at least not entirely.
Ward: Many music fans prefer British rock magazines like Q, Mojo, and Uncut to Rolling Stone and Spin. What is it that you think the British rock media has going for it that the Americans can’t seem to conjure up?
Hochman: Same as always, the UK is much more compact a market, so it’s more possible to provide the kind of focus and delve into the kind of minutiae that Q and Mojo handle so well. The U.S. is just too big–you almost have to choose between the mainstream and the underground here. You can’t cover both. But in Britain they are not that far apart in many people’s minds.
Ward: Do you prefer writing profiles, record and concert reviews or feature stories and why?
Hochman: My joke is that I’ve been a music critic since I was 7, but only started getting paid for when I was 27, so reviewing is arguably closest to my heart–let’s face it, we all love having our opinions published! But I also love talking with musicians about their music, and with record company people about the mechanics of the business. I think the strongest things I’ve done have been profiles, and I’m very proud of my weekly news column, “Pop Eye”–I’ve learned to be a reporter on the job, and think I’ve done pretty well overall.
Ward: Are your writing for any other publications right now other than the L.A. Times and can you talk about what kind of editor Robert Hilburn is?
Hochman: I don’t seem to be writing with any regularity for other publications at this time. It’s been a bit since I did anything for Rolling Stone. I did a couple of things for Blender. I’m supposed to start doing some music segments for the “California Report,” a public radio program produced by KQED in SF. The Times stuff keeps me busy enough these days. Robert Hilburn is certainly the most important person in my career–he took me into theTimes world in 1985 and worked a lot with me to develop my skills as a journalist, not just a reviewer. He’s both enthusiastic and sharp, and expects a lot from his writers. Sometimes, I suppose, as an editor he put his stamp on things I wrote, but simply in terms of style, not opinion. And once he gained full confidence in my abilities he’s trusted me. For the last few years, though, he hasn’t done a lot of direct editing of my work. That more often falls to Richard Cromelin, who has a sense of precision and economy in language, and a near-photographic memory, so he’s hard to sneak anything by (and has saved my butt on numerous occasions by catching errors). They’re also wonderful people.
Ward: Is there any particular interview you have done over the years that still sticks out in your mind–a favorite?
Hochman: Two from my early years doing this stand out: Leonard Cohen (around the time of I’m Your Man) hosted me in his small L.A. apartment, and was tremendously gracious, thoughtful and, of course, articulate. That was for a fairly long piece in Pulse. Around the same time I interviewed John Lydon, which was almost the opposite experience. We did it in a driveway outside Virgin Records offices, he was also thoughtful and articulate, but when he was bored, it was over. Another one must be mentioned as well: an interview with Yoko Ono in connection to the film Imagine: John Lennon. It took place in a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Naturally I was pretty nervous–the Beatles are the reason I do what I do, and I’d always admired Yoko. Her publicist, Elliot Mintz, ushered me in, did the introductions and we sat down. I set up my little tape recorder, and we started. About 15 minutes into the session I took a look at the recorder and, to my horror, saw that the tape had not moved an inch. I’d even used a plug rather than batteries just to avoid this kind of thing–but Mintz had turned off a light that was in Yoko’s eyes, and it turned out that the same switch controlled the outlet I’d plugged into. I figured I was screwed, but Yoko said, calmly, “That was just the rehearsal. Now we’ll do the real interview.” I stammered that there was limited time since other reporters were lined up for their turns, and she just said, “They can wait.” Other memorable experiences: The Times‘ first interview with Eddie Vedder (at the 1992 Lollapalooza in Irvine–he was terrific to talk with, and we walked out to the concourse, with him donning a wig and helmet, so he could go to the Rock for Choice booth and sign their petition)…Spending a day in San Francisco with Czech band Pulnoc, which featured members of the great underground band Plastic People of the Universe . Oh, and of course the week in 1989 I got to spend on the road in Florida with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers for a Rolling Stone“Tom Petty tour diary” piece. Sheesh, once I get started a bunch more come to mind as well–what a great job this is!!
Ward: Tell us about the series of rock books you have edited–Popular Musicians–and do you have any plans to author a rock biography or another kind of rock book?
Hochman: To say I “edited” that is not really accurate–and I was stunned when I got my copy of the set in the mail and saw that I had been given that prominent credit! The truth is, I was brought into that project by McCrae Adams, a staff editor at a company called Salem Press, which specializes in reference books for schools and libraries. He was really the editor. My role was simply to help find some contributing writers, review the planned entries to make sure nothing serious was being left out (and conversely, designate what acts could be eliminated). I also wrote the Beatles entry and I think one or two others, and edited a few others. But give the credit to McCrae, the real editor–though I’m proud that the set was named by the American Library Association as the reference guide of the year for whatever year that was. That will look great on a resume if I ever need to write one again! I have no real plans to write a book–and frankly, if I were to do so, I don’t think I’d want to write one about music, since I do that every day anyway. However, if the right offer came in, I would consider it. But I’m not out there pitching music book ideas. (I came close once, though, when I was flown to Memphis to meet with Joe Walsh about co-writing his autobiography in the early ’90s. Don’t laugh–the guy has had a VERY interesting, and at times tragic, life. We got along great, though he had some rather odd ideas about the book plans, such as the FIRST volume just going through his high school years. Back in L.A. he and I were set to get together to work on a sample chapter to shop to publishers, but when I called to get directions to his house, he never returned the call–and I never heard from him again. Oh well. However, if you listen to his album Ordinary Average Guy, which he was recording in Memphis while I was there, on the first song there’s a group of people shouting “hey hey hey” in the chorus…and I’m one of them! He didn’t give me credit though, which is maybe for the best…)
Ward: What rock writers or music magazines do you think are producing the best work today?
Hochman: My Times colleague Chuck Phillips might be the key music journalist of our time–and was very deserving of the Pulitzer he won a few years ago. His coverage of the business, and his exposes, have revolutionized the way we look at the music world, and he’s a tireless reporter. As far as pure critics, I think I enjoy reading Richard Cromelin’s reviews more than I do anyone else’s…though former Times writer Chris Willman (now at Entertainment Weekly) may be the most entertaining rock crit out there today. There are many others I respect and revere as well…I probably enjoy reading Mojo more than any other mag at this time, but that may have something to do with me being a middle-aged geek.
Ward: What advice would you give any younger writers out there who might want to scribble about music for a living one day?
Hochman: Get a life! No, I mean that. The worst music journalists/critics are the ones who know nothing outside of music. Nothing beats a broad, liberal arts education. I rarely read books about music (I mostly read novels and literature). And also, remember that it doesn’t always matter whether you actually like the music you’re writing about or not–what matters is what story there is to tell, and how you tell it. Mostly, just write–write anything, anywhere, any time (almost a Who title there…) just for the sake of learning how to write, before you try to get work as a rock critic. If you can’t write clearly (with strong command of language and grammar), you have no business trying to be a journalist. (But please don’t hold me to that in my answers to this interview!!!!)